Hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spent influencing local politics on Facebook while 40 ads placed by sitting MPs have broken the website’s transparency rules.
Facebook users are being targeted with thousands of adverts seeking to influence their opinion of local politics.
Hundreds of individual MPs, elected officials and local authorities have placed nearly half a million pounds’ worth of promotions on the site in less than a year.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant last year began publishing details of who places – and pays for – adverts promoting political or social issues.
Spending on these ads, often targeted to specific groups, has totalled more than £6.4m since last October.
And while much of the attention has focused on the big parties and pressure groups on either side of the Brexit divide, the data also reveals the thousands of adverts placed at a local level, often seeking to influence constituents on what can appear to be seemingly mundane neighbourhood issues.
Under new rules Facebook introduced in October 2018, anyone placing a political advert must declare who paid for it.
Our investigation identified around 300 ads on the pages of local politicians and councils which were run without these disclaimers - including 40 placed on behalf of sitting MPs.
There is no suggestion that any of the adverts had been deliberate attempts to deceive constituents. They were all found and removed by Facebook.
But with a general election looking likely in the coming months, campaigners have questioned the transparency of the system.
The Open Rights Group, which campaigns for internet users’ digital rights, said social media has become a “key battleground for political campaigns”.
Its data and democracy officer, Pascal Crowe, said the “rules that shape our elections are ripe for reform”.
“For example, it is currently too easy to field a political advert on Facebook without revealing who is paying for that ad,” he said.
“It is now perhaps easier than ever to game the system and avoid being held to account.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said: “Our industry-leading tools are making it easier to see all political ads on our platforms, and archives them for seven years in Facebook’s Ad Library.
“People are able to report concerns to us or regulators as appropriate.”
A Government spokesperson said: “There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded. We will bring forward technical proposals by the end of the year.”
Councils spent more than £20,000 on targeted Facebook ads
With 40 million users in the UK alone, Facebook is seen by many politicians and groups as an effective way of reaching constituents.
Since last October, at least £209,000 has been spent on ads for individual MPs - including campaigns for the Conservative Party’s leadership contest - and at least £32,000 was spent on ads placed through MEPs’ Facebook pages.
Local councils spent more than £20,000 on Facebook promotions, while adverts placed by individual councillors totalled more than £24,000.
Around £120,000 was spent on promotions for elected mayors and mayoral candidates.
Which MPs used Facebook ads?
In the Wakefield district three out of four MPs and a handful of councillors spent money on Facebook adverts.
Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns spent an estimated £1,000 on Facebook adverts, according to the data.
Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper spent an estimated £200.
Wakefield MP Mary Creagh spent less than £100 and no data was available for Hemsworth MP Jon Trickett.
Most Wakefield councillors did not spend on Facebook advertising, but Labour’s Darren Byford and the district’s only Liberal Democrat MP Tom Gordon both spent less than £100.
Airedale, Ferry Fryston, Townville & Fryston Independents spent £102.
Councillors Tracy Austin, Michael Graham, and Labour Councillors or Stanley and Outwood East also spent less than £100 each.
The data states that the Facebook adds attributed to Coun Gordon and to the Airedale independents were run without a disclaimer of who paid for them.
The MPs, Coun Gordon, and Airedale, Ferry Fryston, Townville & Fryston Independents have been approached for comment.
A view from a political expert
A politics expert has said online advertising will become the dominant method of political campaigning and there were big concerns about how data is used.
Dr Pete Woodcock, head of division at the University of Huddersfield’s Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences said the method was increasingly popular with politicians because it was a way to speak directly to the electorate rather than through conventional channels.
He said: “Opportunities to speak directly to the electorate are relatively rare unlike in America where you can book TV adverts. Here you are limited to party political broadcasts.
“More and more people get information online, especially younger voters and that changing demographic is an important battleground.
“The fancy and controversial element in that is by use of data you can start targeting certain demographics on Facebook.
“On TV it is one message sent to everyone but on Facebook you can target things far more, around tuition fees or Europe for example. Political parties can do their research on a more sophisticated basis and see what message should be sent where.
“With the Cambridge Analytica scandal the controversial part is how Facebook, political parties or the organisations they employ get that data.”
He said people were usually able to make a judgement about news from conventional media organisations as their political affiliations were usually clear but the waters were muddied with news on Facebook – especially if source of funding is not supplied.
Dr Woodcock said: “On Facebook if it is not clear where the funding for an advert has come from it becomes a question of whether we can see it as trying to give us a specific message or whether it is an impartial piece of news - then we’re in fake news territory.”
He said the prominence of online advertising would grow because it was an attractive way of getting a message across to a large number of voters and did not require swathes of volunteers in the same way that leafletting would.
He said: “There is no doubt that online advertising will be the future of political campaigning. It is an efficient way to get a message across.
“The big problem for me is the likelihood of having an echo chamber where people communicate with one another and only see opinions they already agree with. That makes people more extreme in their views and that is the worry.”